If you were to compare Yu-Gi-Oh! as a competitive trading card game with Magic: The Gathering, one trait separating the two is the variety of potential formats for players to sink their teeth into. While MTG has literally dozens of formats between Modern, Standard, Arena, Vintage and many, many more, the same can’t be said for Yu-Gi-Oh! Sure, for as long as the game has had a banlist there’s been the existence of both Advanced and Traditional - where Traditional allows players to use a single copy of all banned cards - but its existence is almost entirely theoretical; you won’t find tournaments, even those run by publisher Konami itself, using Traditional card pools.
As such, what you see is what you get. Even as players conjured up their own alternative styles, these mostly took the form of retrospective nostalgic games purely for fun, revisiting older banlists or enjoying sealed events where players open pre-release packs and build their own decks to win early stock of new releases. There was nothing like the tailored banlists or rulesets of Magic or the unique playstyles offered by the likes of Two-Headed Giant, which received its own tailored booster pack in 2018.
That is, until Speed Duel.
Speed Duel promised to bring this alternative format play to Yu-Gi-Oh! for the very first time. It had its own booster packs, cards and rules, tailored to creating a speedier take on the traditional game. It had Konami backing, dedicated tournaments and even a bit of momentum as it followed the success of the Duel Links mobile game by essentially bringing that title’s unique ruleset into a physical medium.
Today, however, it appears stalled, and even with new sets on the horizon its future is uncertain. What is Speed Duel, and is there a future for this unusual form of Yu-Gi-Oh?
Speed Duel takes its inspiration primarily from the Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Links mobile game, which uses a modified ruleset with broad shared mechanics. Essentially, think of a format that shrinks the game board to three monsters and spell/trap cards each, reduces life points and costs for summoning, and sprinkles in character abilities.
Speed Duel appears stalled, and even with new sets on the horizon its future is uncertain.
In Speed Duel, each player uses a smaller deck of between 20 to 30 cards, with an Extra Deck of up to just five monsters. Not only is it smaller, but the Extra Deck can only contain Fusion Monsters - Synchro, Xyz and Link Monsters have yet to be introduced. Each player starts with 4000 life points instead of the 8000 used in the TCG rules, and players must also choose one character-based skill card and place it face down in front of them. Each player has a four card starting hand, and your turn ends after your battle phase with no Main Phase 2.
The skill card is what differentiates the format most from the standard variant. These cards, based on characters from the anime, have their own conditions for activation. Yami Yugi’s Destiny Draw requires you to first lose 2000 or more life points, while others can be activated from the start of the duel - such as Mai’s Aroma Strategy, which allows you to look at the top card of your deck at any time.
All these rules, particularly with the augmentation offered by skill cards, provides an overall speedier format for Yu-Gi-Oh! that appeals to nostalgia. With only a curated list of legal cards based on older cards reprinted in special Speed Duel sets, it's a chance for forgotten cards from the series’ past to gain renewed relevance in a new form, or for anime favourites that are no longer viable within the current meta to find a playable home. The aforementioned skill cards featuring anime-favourite characters only enhances the appeal for those looking to revive their childhood obsession.
Speed Duel debuted at the start of 2019 with the Destiny Masters and Duelists of Tomorrow starter decks. Included in each of these releases were three 20-card decks based on various original series characters and nine skill cards, alongside some Ultra Rare variants for some included cards. By the end of 2019, four booster pack sets had been released and, with a small, dedicated tournament scene building alongside mainline events, Tournament Packs similar to those offered to competitors of TCG events.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Speed Duel’s relative success as a burgeoning alternative didn’t come without its own share of complaints. One major sticking point was the requirement that competitive tournaments require the use of official Speed Duel products. What seems like a reasonable request on the surface left a sour taste in the mouths of some when cards released were nothing new to the franchise, and were little more than reprints with a new Speed Duel watermark.
Get past the aesthetic issues and this was a cheap and entertaining way to jump into the world of Yu-Gi-Oh!
Smaller deck sizes often made duels repetitive as it became easier to reach your desired cards, making strategies repetitive across multiple duels. Furthermore, from this writer’s own perspective, the only ‘original’ cards in Speed Duel were the skill cards, whose mishmash of fonts and recycled anime artwork was unappealing to say the least.
Still, get past the aesthetic issues and this was a cheap and entertaining way to jump into the world of Yu-Gi-Oh! Major releases were often priced lower than TCG sets, and even bumper releases like the recent Speed Duel GX boxes - featuring eight pre-constructed decks and a slew of bonus and skill cards - have typically cost under £25 per release. Compared to the three-figure prices players invest into a competitive TCG deck, a similarly-competitive Speed Duel deck could be constructed for under £30.
Yet even with side events at major tournaments including the 2019 World Championships, Speed Duel never received an official major tournament series and player count was small - an issue that only compounded itself when the COVID pandemic hit. With the switch to Remote Duel events, many official tournament stores that once held complementary Speed Duel events alongside their TCG tournaments dropped support, while product demand and production issues saw a major decrease in new releases.
Although 2020 saw two more starter decks, with the delayed release of Twisted Nightmares and Match of the Millennium in May and the Battle City Box featuring eight pre-built decks at the end of the year, no Speed Duel products were released in 2021. Such a lapse, coupled with the fact that the lack of a banlist until summer 2022, led to an extended period of static for the game without evolution in the meta that saw even its more dedicated players leave the game.
Fan-mantained Discord servers have helped retain engagement for its remaining diehard players. Yet excitement for this month’s GX Duelists of Shadows release, which in a successful world would be much-anticipated by the community for the return of fan-favourite Sacred Beast cards and more, has been muted to say the least.
It’s hard not to look at Speed Duel as an odd child Konami doesn’t quite know what to do with. The success (and continued success) of Duel Links clearly convinced the company of a reason to invest in this mode in the first place, but without booster pack releases since 2019 the pre-built deck, bi-annual release strategy leaves the format feeling like an afterthought. Between its origins both in the Japanese arcade with Duel Terminal and Duel Links that pioneered the style of play digitally, the regular updates, tournaments and events that kept these games feeling fresh and players returning is nowhere to be seen.
It’s hard not to look at Speed Duel as an odd child Konami doesn’t quite know what to do with.
Then there’s the spectre of Rush Duel. This was the alternative which followed the short-lived attempt to bring Speed Duel to the physical realm in Japan in 2016, without dedicated booster packs and a different ruleset to western Speed Duel that allowed for pendulum summons and other mechanics. It was designed from the ground up to differentiate itself from the original game, with redesigned cards emphasising larger artworks alongside its own ruleset, and unlike Speed Duel was a runaway success, particularly with younger audiences the franchise had struggled to attract even in Japan in recent years.
Although Konami continues to support Speed Duel in the English market for now, tentative steps have been made to bring Rush Duel internationally. Yu-Gi-Oh! Rush Duel: Dawn of the Battle Royale!! released in English on Nintendo Switch at the end of 2021, as did the first TV anime centred on the Rush Duel format via Disney XD in 2022. Were it to take this one step further with physical products, it is unlikely the two formats could coexist.
For now at least, Speed Duel support will continue. A new set has been announced for an August release reviving the Battle City theme, news that makes any potential English-language Rush Duel physical product unlikely until the end of 2023 or even 2024 if planned. Who knows, maybe Konami could use the return of in-person events to revive interest in Speed Duel and retain this split between the regions.
Regional and World Championship season is soon upon us, a time when the biggest tournaments in the Yu-Gi-Oh! calendar take place while providing space for side events such as Speed Duel to garner some attention in the process. The question is whether the effort to revive interest in the format is worth the effort when the company has already found success at home with something else. As it stands, it’s hard not to wonder if the Speed Duel engine has finally run out of steam.